The Best Book of Biographies: Great Lives, Great Deeds

“We were knowledgeable enough to verify our information, reverent enough to respect the deeds of a hero without trying to deconstruct his every molecule, and still innocent enough to believe in heroic, altruistic, moral duty. We don’t live there anymore as a society and it would benefit us to look back at some of what was good about that era.” — Amanda Stiver

hat and artifacts on map

Image: Amanda Stiver

HAVING taken a break from talking history for a while, I come back in the midst of missing Malaysian airliners, war in the Crimea, tensions in the Israeli corridor, tragic shootings on a U.S. military base, ongoing economic sticky-messes, inept political leadership, earthquakes in California and Chile, and buffalo running a-muck in Yellowstone National Park… so more of the same, only different.

As always, or this site wouldn’t be called “HistoryGal,” I tend to look back to get a little perspective on the future. One of my favorite sources (parents and home-based teachers, this one’s a great resource) is a chubby collection of biographies by that superb purveyor of condensed books of old, Reader’s Digest. Titled Great Lives, Great Deeds it contains over 80 short biographies of famous individuals.

True enough, modern scholarship may make some of the information outdated, but generally the basics are accurate. Remember that all history rises and falls on the bias of those writing it, even current authors.

WHAT I love most of all about this book is the stirring way in which history was written. I consider it the golden age of American historiography (mid-20th century). We were knowledgeable enough to verify our information, reverent enough to respect the deeds of a hero without trying to deconstruct his every molecule, and still innocent enough to believe in heroic, altruistic, moral duty. We don’t live there anymore as a society and it would benefit us to look back at some of what was good about that era.

Of particular note in Great Lives, Great Deeds are the biographies of American revolutionary heroes. The account of Paul Revere, “The Midnight Rider,” by Esther Forbes is stunning. An excerpt, like much of Reader’s Digest material, it is from a larger work I have not yet read, but plan to. A very short sample:

“They who had so recently seen the stocky, benevolent old gentleman walking the streets of Boston could hardly have guessed that he was destined forever to ride a foaming charger, his face enveloped in the blackness of a famous night, to become in time hardly a man at all–only a hurry of hoofs in a village street, a voice in the dark, a knock on a door, a disembodied spirit crying the alarm–an American patriot who, on a moonlit night in 1775, started out on a ride which, in a way, has never ended,” (Great Lives, Great Deeds, Reader’s Digest Association, 1964, pg. 272).

THIS kind of history moves, the writing has electricity and it stirs us to greater devotions of our own, whatever the cause is to which we are devoted (we all need one by the way, preferably a good one). This kind of stirring writing is not unlike the Bible accounts of the great heroes, and sometimes anti-heroes, of the Israelite world and environs. When most people think of the Bible, they think of stories (hopefully not films like the recent non-version of Noah) and characters. This one did this deed, that one fought that war, this one stood up to this dictator, etc…

I like to talk about gateways to history. Interesting ways in which we can pique our curiosity and gain an appreciation for and desire to learn from history. Biographies are a fantastic gateway. They give you enough of a story flow to sink your teeth into, while still filling in historical details of one era or another that by the end of a biography you will find that you are somewhat of a burgeoning expert on a small section of the historical timeline!

SO if you can find a used copy of Great Lives, Great Deeds to add to  your shelf (it is out of print) then do so (it also makes a great bathroom reader). There are many other historical characters of note to get acquainted with like Winston Churchill, Simon Bolivar, Edith Cavell, Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Patrick Henry, George Washington… and many more.

Find a copy and make an exploration of history, person by person.

And as always–keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Advertisements

The Paul Bunyans and Me

Sometimes you get the chance to draw near to your family history and often in the most unexpected ways. Yesterday I watched a tree trimming crew dispatch some overgrown pine trees from a neighbor’s yard.

A piece of large-scale logging equipment on display near Snowshoe, WV.

As the cutter scaled the approximately 40-foot tree and removed limbs as he went, I was reminded that my grandfather and uncles did this very type of work during their years as men of the forest. By trade they were loggers, harvesters of tree growth, but to say they were just lumberjacks who chopped down trees doesn’t even begin to do them justice.

The tree trimmer reached the top of the tree, supporting himself with a band around the trunk and sharp spiked boots, and secured with rope the very top of the tree, branches still intact. Still perched precariously he zipped through the trunk above him and his ground crew kept well back as the top fell to the earth with a crash. He descended and finally the bare trunk was ready to come down.

Making the connection…

I was never able to watch my grandfather or uncles at work, so my image of a logger’s work came in books, movies, family stories, and the occasional tree removal in the yard. Seeing this type of scaling firsthand helped to flesh out the stories of danger and hazard that they dealt with every day.

It also brought to mind their other accomplishments. Knowing forests are full of very tall plants and, considering that we farm by planting plants and harvesting them, you can begin to understand that logging is another form of farming. My grandfather knew more about forest life and tree ecology than I will ever hope to know. You can’t work in that environment for such a length of time without developing a clear understanding of your surroundings. Your life depends on it!

The harvesting of trees is only half of a lumberjack’s job. To harvest again in the future you have to replant and I believe the ratio is 7 trees planted for every 1 tree cut. To know how to fall a tree you must have knowledge of branch growth which can interfere with the fall and cause undue damage to you or other trees. Even then the forest is full of surprises and the best of men have lost their lives in this line of work.

Clear cutting an area is only one of many methods of harvesting; however, it is the most drastic with the most visual impact. That’s why it made the news so much in the late 1990’s when the politically correct trend was to be a tree worshipping environmentalist. Selective cutting is what you do if you want to continue to make an income from your stand of trees. A few trees, cut specifically, improve the health of the remaining trees.

By the way, woodland animals live in meadows and at the edge of the forest, not in deep, dark, densely packed old-growth stands. They need vitamin-D, too – just to knock another myth in the head while I’m on the subject.

Hat’s off…

History is like that. Sometimes you unexpectedly come across a connection to the past. You begin to better understand what happened during an important historical event or your own family history.

I’m glad I got the chance to see the kind of work my grandfather did. Thanks grandpa (and to all the other Paul Bunyans out there) for surviving all the injuries and near-death crisis inherent in your work. I wish I could have said it while you were still present to hear it.

– Amanda Stiver

Praising John Adams

The U.S. had its fair share of kingmakers and quasi-aristocrats in its early years, but the venerable John Adams seems not to have been among them. That didn’t stop his opponents from labeling the force behind the Declaration of Independence a royalist!

From a farm in Braintree, Massachusetts and working as a lawyer in Boston and environs, Adams stood up for what was right and faced down those with whom he disagreed, most vociferously at times and sometimes to the annoyance of others – many others.

However, an aristocrat he was not and seemed not to have been riddled by the double standards that plagued Jefferson and others. He is fast becoming one of my favorite patriots of the revolutionary period.

I draw these conclusions from the masterful biography, John Adams, written by David McCullough. I know that it doesn’t do to rely only on one book to try to understand an historical figure, but I was struck by the fairness of McCullough’s approach to Adams, his friends, and his enemies.

The author treats his subjects as men with all their flaws, but doesn’t deny that they were extraordinary men in extraordinary times. Especially touching is the skillful way he weaves in the relationship between John and Abigail Adams and that of their extended family. Their vast letter writing capacity despite years and years of separation proves that a happy marriage isn’t based solely on the physical, but requires a strong intellectual attraction as well.

I strongly recommend this book as a basic primer on Adams. McCullough’s very approachable style of writing turns a somewhat lengthy book into a compelling page-turner. If you are trying to sink your teeth into history, this is a good place to start. I will admit that it slows as the narrative follows Adams life to its close, but perhaps that is because the 1770’s in America were so packed with action that the 1820’s seem placid in comparison.

For the interested historian John Adams is a fabulous resource of excerpts from letters and written works by Adams and others. A good author knows how and when to use a source directly rather than a paraphrase and this book is proof of that. Hearing the subject in his own words helps us draw a better picture of the man, more so because Adams was a straightforward individual (agree with him or not) and free of rank political duplicity.

Great book, great man, great marriage – great history.

– Amanda Stiver